How Old Are These Keys? Five Eras of Human Progress

My keyboard, if you removed the symbols from the typewriter and computer eras. Try it yourself.

February 25, 2020 โ€” One of the questions I often come back to is this: how much of our collective wealth is inherited by our generation versus created by our generation?

I realized that the keys on the keyboard in front of me might make a good dataset to attack that problem. So I built a small interactive experiment to explore the history of the keys on my keyboard.

The Five Waves of Symbols

Interactive Version

Painting with broad strokes, there were approximately five big waves of inventions that have left their mark on the keyboard:

Concentric Circles

An interesting pattern that I never saw before is how the five waves above are roughly arranged in circles.

The oldest symbols (letters) are close to the center, followed by the Hindu-Arabic Numbers, surrounded by the punctuation of the Englightenment, surrounded by the keys of the typewriter, surrounded by the recent additions in the P.C. era.

(Again, I'm painting with broad strokes, but I found that to be an interesting pattern.)

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

All of these waves happened before my generation.

Almost all of them before any generation alive today.

The keyboard dataset provides strong evidence that most of our collective wealth is inherited.

Build Notes

I got this idea last week and couldn't get it out of my head. Yesterday I took a quick crack at it. I didn't have much time to spare, just enough to explore the big ideas.

I started by typing all the characters on my keyboard into a dataset. Then I dug up some years for a handful of the symbols.

Next I found the great Apple CSS keyboard. I stitched together the two and it seemed to be at least mildly interesting so I opted to continue.

I then flushed out most of the dataset.

Finally I played around with a number of visualization effects. At first I thought heatmaps would work well, and tried a few variations on that, but wasn't happy with anything. I posted my work-in-progress to a few friends last night and called it a day. Today I switched to the "disappearing keys" visualization. That definitely felt like a better approach than the heatmap.

I made the thing as fun as I could given time constraints and then shipped.


April 28, 2024 โ€” Update: I finally got around to making a chart with this data and adding colors to the keys.


Dataset
symbol year count source
acommandIconSymbol 1980 104 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Command_key
acommandIconSymbol 1980 104 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Command_key
acommandSymbol 1980 104 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Command_key
acommandSymbol 1980 104 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Command_key
aescSymbol 1974 100 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esc_key
aenterSymbol 1971 99 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enter_key
aaltSymbol 1970 98 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meta_key
aaltSymbol 1970 98 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meta_key
aBacktickSymbol 1970 98 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grave_accent#Use_in_programming
aoptionSymbol 1970 98 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meta_key
aoptionSymbol 1970 98 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meta_key
af10Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af11Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af12Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af1Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af2Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af3Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af4Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af5Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af6Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af7Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af8Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
af9Symbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
afnSymbol 1965 93 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key
acontrolSymbol 1963 80 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Control_key
atabSymbol 1900 79 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tab_key
aPowerSymbol 1884 78 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_switch
acapsLockSymbol 1878 77 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typewriter#Shift_key
ashiftSymbol 1878 77 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shift_key
ashiftSymbol 1878 77 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shift_key
a_Symbol 1874 74 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underscore
adeleteSymbol 1874 74 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backspace
areturnSymbol 1874 74 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typewriter
a#Symbol 1853 71 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_sign
aspacebarBlankSymbol 1843 70 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_bar
a|Symbol 1841 69 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_mathematical_symbols_by_introduction_date
a$Symbol 1770 68 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dollar_sign
adownSymbol 1737 67 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_(symbol)
aleftSymbol 1737 67 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_(symbol)
arightSymbol 1737 67 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_(symbol)a
aupSymbol 1737 67 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_(symbol)
a/Symbol 1718 63 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_mathematical_symbols_by_introduction_date
aSlashSymbol 1718 63 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_mathematical_symbols_by_introduction_date
a^Symbol 1681 61 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/caret
a 1631 61 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_mathematical_symbols_by_introduction_date
a>Symbol 1631 61 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_mathematical_symbols_by_introduction_date
a=Symbol 1557 58 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_mathematical_symbols_by_introduction_date
a(Symbol 1544 57 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracket#Parentheses_(_)
a)Symbol 1544 57 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracket#Parentheses_(_)
a'Symbol 1496 55 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostrophe
a;Symbol 1494 54 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semicolon
a-Symbol 1489 53 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plus_and_minus_signs
a!Symbol 1450 52 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exclamation_mark
a%Symbol 1435 51 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percent_sign
a"Symbol 1400 50 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quotation_mark
a+Symbol 1360 49 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_mathematical_symbols_by_introduction_date
a@Symbol 1345 48 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At_sign
a[Symbol 1300 47 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracket
a]Symbol 1300 47 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracket
a{Symbol 1300 47 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracket
a}Symbol 1300 47 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracket
a,Symbol 1200 43 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comma
a~Symbol 1086 42 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tilde
a0Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a1Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a2Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a3Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a4Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a5Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a6Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a7Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a8Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a9Symbol 825 41 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
a?Symbol 800 31 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Question_mark
awSymbol 700 30 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W
aySymbol 100 29 https://www.daytranslations.com/blog/origin-english-alphabet/
a*Symbol 0 28 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asterisk
a&Symbol 0 28 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ampersand
apSymbol -200 26 https://www.daytranslations.com/blog/origin-english-alphabet/
agSymbol -230 25 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G
a:Symbol -300 24 https://enz.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colon_(punctuation)
a.Symbol -300 24 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Full_stop
acSymbol -300 24 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C
ajSymbol -500 21 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J
arSymbol -500 21 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R
atSymbol -500 21 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T
axSymbol -500 21 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X
aaSymbol -1000 17 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A
afSymbol -1000 17 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F
aiSymbol -1000 17 https://www.daytranslations.com/blog/origin-english-alphabet/
akSymbol -1000 17 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K
alSymbol -1000 17 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L
amSymbol -1000 17 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M
auSymbol -1000 17 https://www.daytranslations.com/blog/origin-english-alphabet/
avSymbol -1000 17 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V
azSymbol -1000 17 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z
abSymbol -2000 8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B
adSymbol -2000 8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D
aeSymbol -2000 8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E
ahSymbol -2000 8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H
anSymbol -2000 8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N
aoSymbol -2000 8 https://www.daytranslations.com/blog/origin-english-alphabet/
aqSymbol -2000 8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q
asSymbol -2000 8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S

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